(For Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, 5th December 2005)
For a country that’s obsessed with sex, we have a terrible track record when it comes to writing about it.
This year’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award was won by Giles Coren for a passage that had the male protagonist gasping and glugging as other bits of him leaped around “like a shower dropped in an empty bath”. But Tarun Tejpal kept the Indian flag flying, with a passage from The Alchemy of Desire that featured burning cores, peaks and valleys and The Last Tango of Labia Minora.
Tejpal’s nomination was unfair; he didn’t plumb the depths in the manner of previous authors of Indian origin who’ve made it to the dreaded shortlist. Unlike Aniruddha Bahal, the 2003 winner, he made no unfortunate comparisons between women and cars: “She picks up a Bugatti’s momentum. You want her more at a Volkswagen’s steady trot.” Unlike Salman Rushdie (nominated for The Moor’s Last Sigh and again this year for Shalimar the Clown), he had no clunky references to perspiration: “For ever they sweated pepper ‘n’ spices sweat.”
Unlike Siddhartha Dhanvant Shanghvi, Tejpal offered no descriptions of “weasel-like loins clutching and unclutching [his] lovely, long, louche manhood, as though squeezing an orange for its juice”. And he eschewed toothbrushes all together, unlike Arundhati Roy, who was nominated years ago for a passage from the God of Small Things that featured “nut-brown breasts” that wouldn’t support a toothbrush and haunches that would support “a whole array” thereof. Rohinton Mistry hasn’t featured on the shortlist, but some of his aura lost its sheen when I read a passage in A Fine Balance that referred to a menacing seducer’s “Bhojpuri brinjal”. It made baingan bharta out of that scene.
There are fifty different ways to write bad sex, and Indian writers have explored all of them. There’s the Washing Machine Manual variety—bland and overly descriptive, as in the works of Shobha De (move from position Y to position Z, insert body part here) or Khushwant Singh (all women have buttocks like tanpuras) or Abha Dawesar (where gynecology replaces emotion). There’s the Lyrical Effusion, as exemplified by Shanghvi, where Mills and Boon prose goes a shade of deep purple: “Aw, Lord, it was only love. Thick as molasses; hungry as a leech.” There’s the inept metaphor—think Bahal and his Bugatti; and the empty cliché—Tejpal’s “burning core”, that old M&B standby.
So much for the land of the Kamasutra—but then that drily descriptive manual, so unerotic in its obsession with classification, may have been responsible for at least one strain of Indian Bad Sex writing. Some of the blame might lie with mistranslation; writers who have ghazals or Tamil erotic poetry on the brain struggling to translate those images into a language less tolerant of effusion. But the trouble with Indian writing about sex is that we take it too seriously, and too literally. And we write about sex the way we write biography, with the disapproving ghosts of our families looking over the writer’s shoulder.
Kalpana Swaminathan understands that one aspect of writing about sex is employing the right contrast. Clarice is obsessed with keeping herself “pure, so help me Jesus”. The deluge of poisonous memories and filth that she vomits up in one passage is neatly balanced by a catalogue of the beautiful, silky lingerie that she keeps with fastidious care. It’s the contrast that makes Clarice, Swaminathan’s character, so real.
Ruchir Joshi understood another aspect of writing about sex: it’s not about the body, but the mind. In The Last Jet Engine Laugh , Paresh and Magali begin to make love. But as he bends to Magali’s body, what’s important is the story Paresh wants to tell—about his mother, Suman, and why she refused to marry his father the first time he asked her. Suman and Mahadev’s story unspools through the lovemaking, the track running in parallel in Paresh’s head as he sees images of his mother leaping for the last time back across the narrow galli that separates her roof from Mahadev’s: “…She felt, for a moment, like a kite that had been cut loose.” Suman does not sing at Mahadev’s wedding; years later, she becomes his second wife, at a quiet ceremony–perhaps she dreams of kites.
It’s like the passage from Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay , where Sartaj and his estranged wife mourn the death of their marriage across a marathon, four-page-long lovemaking scene. Like Joshi, Chandra knows the secret of writing good sex: if you’re writing about the body, remember that it’s all in the head.